That Time Orson Welles Called for Outlawing Racist Speech

Some arguments have been around for a while.


Just in case you were under the impression that America's ongoing arguments about free speech and hate speech were something new, here's an excerpt from an article published in July 1944:

A whine before its time?There are laws against peddling dope; there can be laws against peddling race hate.

That every man has a right to his own opinion is an American boast. But race hate isn't an opinion; it's a phobia. It isn't a viewpoint; race hate is a disease. In a people's world the incurable racist has no rights.

The author, I'm sad to report, was Orson Welles, whose 100th birthday is today. I yield to no one in my admiration for Welles' work in film and radio, and in my wish that I could have experienced one of his productions for the stage. But as an editorialist, he left a lot to be desired.

Bonus birthday argument-starter: The top five Orson Welles movies, offered with the understanding that the unmutilated Magnificent Ambersons might have been better than any of them:

1. Touch of Evil (1958)
2. F for Fake (1973)
3. Citizen Kane (1941)
4. The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
5. Othello (1952)

To prove Welles had some civil libertarian instincts, here's the best line from the film at number 1: "A policeman's job is only easy in a police state."

NEXT: CNN Anchor Says Constitution Doesn't Protect Hate Speech, Try Reading It. Okay, Let's Do That.

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  1. Yeah, I’ve seen Cit Kane a few times….gnnnngghhh….still don’t get what’s so great about it.

    Othello I thought was pretty cool – mostly the sets.

    1. What is great about Citizen Kane is that it gave us foundation for so many awesome Simpsons scenes.

      “You know that man – it’s Mr. Burns! He’s worth ten times what he earns!”

    2. With so many people calling it the best movie of all time, it suffers from excessive expectations.

      1. I don’t think it’s the best movie of all time, but I understand and agree with its prestige as an example of excellent movie-making.

        The editing, set designs, cinematography, all that good stuff holds up as brilliant and groundbreaking. It’s just the story that feels dated.

        1. Cinematography.

          The way it’s shot.

          Awesomeness that impacted so much that came afterwards.

          The Third Man is like that, too.

          It isn’t just the way that’s shot, either. Wells improvised that bit about the cuckoo clock, but I think, subconsciously or otherwise, he adapted it from the discussion between the Fool and King Lear, when the Fool is telling Lear how it really is up on the cliffs of…

          Anyway–those films are the total modern package. And they shouldn’t only be judged against everything that came after them–although they still stand up to that. They should also be judged against what else there was at that point in time–when they were created.

          1. I should note that I was only listing movies he directed, not films he just acted in. Otherwise The Third Man would have made it onto the list.

          2. Forgot The Third Man – also excellent for the shots and cinematography, yes. Really, really cool movie, that now seems very “old timey”….but still cool!

            1. And the soundrack — you can’t leave out the soundtrack!

        2. That’s my understanding too. Craftwise was how it excelled. Not that interesting a story. So it’s good to watch only if you’re a student of moviemaking.

      2. And yet you picked the dreadful F For Fake #2.

        At least you didn’t pick Mr. Arkadin, which is also lousy.

        1. I’ve got to see F For Fake some time, after the buildup Robert Anton Wilson gave it.

          I do like to take in stuff that I’ve an ax to grind over, like Lost (serial, not game show, although the game show was a pretty good idea too). Aside from its makers (& probably not even all of them), I may be the only person who appreciates Lost for its content as a hidden mystery w hidden allusions. The more time passes, the more I see that it really was a continuation of Damon’s gaming w me.

      3. I think it also gets a bump up because Welles was more or less an independent filmmaker who fought constantly against the studio bosses, and it seems there are a lot of critics who think that fighting the studio execs is always a good thing for a movie. (I think it’s the same reason foreign-language films often tend to get overrated. Not Hollywood == superior, seems to be the logic.)

        The editing of The Magnificent Ambersons reminds me of an earlier movie that was heavily edited down: Erich von Stroheim’s Greed. Stroheim took a book and made… a nine-hour movie out of it. Obviously this wouldn’t fly, so the studio edited it down to ~140 minutes. The thing is there would have been a good 140-minute movie to be made from the source material, but Stroheim didn’t let them make it. (MGM should have had Frances Marion write the script.) I’ve seen the four-hour reconstruction of Greed, and it’s interminable.

        1. In the case of The Magnificent Ambersons, the studio really was in the wrong. The movie is just about perfect until you get to the cuts, and then suddenly it’s like someone started slicing at random.

      4. Agree with Grand Moff: The story left me pretty ehhhh; I think at the time it was made the technical stuff was pretty ground breaking — things we just take for granted today. Definitely a technical innovator. So claims that it is the greatest movie ever made need to be taken in historical/technical context.

    3. Citizen Kane did some serious firsts in terms of movies, like long tracking shots, framing, various things. These are all things you’ve seen a million times in movies, so if you see Citizen Kane, none of it seems impressive…unless you realize that it did them first. These things have all been copied countless times now.

      Citizen Kane is a pretty good movie story-wise, but not great. But it’s those firsts that it did that make it impressive. But you have to have that context, that realization, to be impressed. It’s like the movie equivalent of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, or Bell making the first phone call.

      People expect it to be the greatest movie of all time, or to truly knock your socks off. It won’t. I mean, it’s not Young Guns II, after all.

      1. Well, YEAH – Young Guns II – seriously!

  2. What is “racist speech”, though? I’ve been hearing on the news that call out people who are rioting (ie, breaking into shops to loot, attacking police and other people, destroying private and/or public property, etc) “thugs”. According to the news, “thugs” is the new “n-word”. So if I called someone breaking into my house in the middle of the night a “thug”, did I just commit a racist act against that person?

    It seems that whether racism is happening or not is determined by the one who owns the narrative.

    1. It’s always interesting people don’t get called out on this shit. If you think the word thug is racist, your probably a racist.

    2. “Racist” speech can be anything and everything. That’s why progs have such a hard-on for making it illegal. Such a law would allow them to ban any speech that they don’t like, as long as they can draw a half-assed connection between that speech and racist attitudes.

      If voter ID laws are racist, then anyone who speaks out in favor of them must be guilty of racist hate speech, right? And since “gun violence” happens mostly in minority neighborhoods, those who argue against gun control must be promoting violence against minorities via their racist hate speech. And if someone doesn’t like Obama (or any other minority Democratic candidate) then they ought to be locked up for racist hate speech!

      I have no doubt that if the “progressives” had their way, there would be laws not only against “racist hate speech”, but speech that is deemed to be sexist, homophobic, AGW denialism, or any other -ism that hurts their feelings.

      1. The future must not belong to those who blaspheme the profit of AGW… 😛

  3. Nice Alt-Text, Jesse.

  4. WTF! Mr. Arkadin didn’t make your list?!

    1. Always welcome and appreciated.

      1. Screw you, Stormy, and screw the refresh button!

  5. Agreed on ‘Touch of Evil’ being his best film, but isn’t Chuck Heston in brown face as a Mexican cop racist hate speech?

    1. It’s Wells’ stage-based conceit that we are suppose to accept Heston as a Mexican the way people accept Wells as Othello. I think Heston nails the character. It’s one of his best performances – even if I can’t accept him as a Mexican.

    2. Charlton Heston was also the president of the NRA, so that’s double the racism.


      1. Charlton Heston advocated for civil rights in the 1960s. (He also marched on Washington with MLK.)

  6. To be fair, that was immediately after the holocaust. The afternoon of 9/11, I would have been fine turning the middle east into a sheet of glass. Which is why legislation in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy is always the worst.

    1. July ’44 is before death camps became widely known, so nothing to do with Holocaust. Man just wanted to outlaw racist speech – not the first nor last man to wish it so.

  7. “But, but … I was simply citing an example of Ebonics! … Oh, NO, NOOOOOOO!!”

  8. …Orson Welles, whose 100th birthday is today…

    The man has been through the birth process a hundred times. We should give him a break, or something.

    1. 100 years? And I didn’t even get him a card.

  9. Let’s not forget “Too Much Johnson” about a woman with two lovers (1938).

  10. I was a little disappointed by F is for Fake, I would substitute his Don Quixote, which, while unfinished and *very* rough around the edges, was still chock full o’ greatness.

  11. Say what you will — I will always consider this his most memorable work. It was unknown to me when I first heard it in an Animaniacs cartoon. I was floored when I learned it was real.


      1. It’s funny from the blatant editing that the arm dressed in black in the game wasn’t his. He obviously wouldn’t submit to sitting at a table with child actors.

  12. While I thoroughly disagree with the sentiment, it’s important to remember the climate of racism in the south (regular lynchings) at the time, and the fact that Welles was 29 and a notoriously egotistical hothead. Still, one of my favorite filmmakers and actors.

  13. I prefer the later works of Orson Welles

    “Rosebud…..yes, Rosebud Frozen Peas! Full of country goodness and green peaness….ugh, that’s terrible! I quit!…..let me just take a few for the road….mmmm…what luck, there’s a french fry stuck in my beard!”

    The Critic remains highly underappreciated.

    1. Nostalgia Critic, right?

      What kind of pistol does he use?

      1. Nevermind; I was thinking about something else.

    2. Yes, Mr. Sherman, everything stinks.

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  15. Narrating one of the best documentaries of all time (well, to me anyway) The Last Sailors was the first work of his I saw.

  16. “In a people’s world, anyone with the wrong opinion has no rights.”

    Much shorter.

  17. Welles’ dismissal of the First Amendment with ” In a people’s world the incurable racist has no rights.” can only reinforce his literary immortality, for ‘Orwellian’ now has a comparative: OrsonWellesian.

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